Requiem

*This is a difficult post that discusses addiction and suicide. Please be cautious about reading this material if you are sensitive to these topics.

Just one, short day after I wrote the grief-bomb post, a member of our extended family took her own life. Because I was immediately needed to support my loved ones, I found myself, unfortunately, in close proximity to the incident itself. I have registered the accompanying shock-waves like a seismograph as they have rolled through my emotional landscape. Shock, horror, disgust, anger, pity, indignation. Sadness. Sadness. Sadness. In the midst of this thick, hot stew of unreconciled emotions that have been difficult to manage because they don’t seem right to me, I struggled most with my feelings of anger. I felt ashamed and guilty for feeling angry with someone who was clearly hurting and in so much emotional pain that taking her own life seemed like the only solution. I asked myself, Where is my love? Where is my compassion? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel anything other than anger in this moment?. I prayed to God to remove what felt like heart of stone inside my chest.

I hesitated to write about this so soon as there are so many people surrounding this situation that are hurting so badly, and I want to be respectful and courteous. I am torn to pieces, but I can’t. I can’t not write about this. I know, grammar. Whatever. The impulse to write about this is overriding whatever polite sensitivities I might have. And you know what? Screw politeness. Being overly polite, keeping secrets, not talking about it is killing people. Literally!

Transparency saves lives.

So, here goes……She was a lovely person, so kind, so giving. She wanted to help everybody. She was a give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back kind of person. Her family loved her dearly. Her fiancé loved her dearly. She was positive and vibrant with a radiant smile. She had a generous heart. She grew up in a sweet, loving family, a family of five. She has a brother and a sister and many nieces, nephews, and cousins who enjoyed spending time with her. She was funny and adventurous, a free-spirit.

My own relationship with her was rocky at best, and I never really understood why. We were very, very different people. We were always cordial, but we had to agree to disagree on just about everything. I didn’t feel comfortable around her, but she was never anything but kind and welcoming. There was something about her that I could never quite put my finger on. I didn’t trust her, but I had no logical reason to feel that way and it confused me. I could never make sense of how uneasy I felt around her. Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense now. There was a part of her that was always hidden. She was in pain, but she hid it. She was depressed, but she hid it. She was battling addiction, but she hid it. The truth is I never really knew her at all. I never had the opportunity. Her life and mine didn’t intersect until she was in the final stages of depression and addiction. The addiction kept her true self locked inside a prison of stigma, shame, and fear. The version of her that I knew was altered by addiction and over-compensated for everything, and I think my codependent radar, engineered by my family’s own experience with addiction, was just constantly ringing the emotional alarm every time I was around her. My subconscious perceived her as dangerous and signaled my flight response. That leaves me with feelings of regret and heartache that I didn’t get to know her. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed, “Please forgive me for missed opportunities to reach out with kindness and compassion. I am so sorry that I couldn’t bridge the gap between us.”

This is perhaps what addiction is best at, best at making everyone surrounding it think that everything is okay so that it can continue to do its dirty work in secret. Concerned friends and family members are the greatest threat to addiction. They are addiction’s first targets to be eliminated at, unfortunately, any cost.

She was trying. She was trying to break free and had periods of sobriety. AA chips were here and there throughout the house. Stacked Bibles with copious amounts of handwritten notes are evidence that she was reading and studying God’s Word. She was trying. And she had won many a battle, but in a fraction of a second, the impulse to escape won the war. And that’s what it was. An impulse. There was no indicator that that day was different from any other. There were none of the typical behavior patterns leading up to a suicide. No plan. No note. Just a single impulsive moment that ended everything.

Several days ago, we celebrated her life at a memorial service. The service was very well done. It helped me reconcile those unresolved feelings of anger and guilt, feeling guilty about feeling so angry. Two of her nieces and a cousin spoke beautifully, tenderly, about how much she meant to them. Through them, I was able to get a glimpse of her before addiction and depression overtook her. Through them, God opened the eyes of my heart and restored my sense of compassion, replaced my heart of stone with a heart of love. As they shared precious memories of her in a time before I met her, I could see her happy and free. She was so precious to her family. Her love changed their lives for the better, made them the people they are today, and the loss of her will never be made whole in their lifetimes. And then something amazing and powerful happened.

Her sister spoke. Up until that point, everyone’s comments had been in the polite category, very proper and nicey-nice. Everyone had talked about how wonderful she was, how much they loved her, and how much she loved them. Her family loved her dearly, dearly. Her sister boldly affirmed everything everyone had said about her. She was indeed all of those things, beautiful, wonderful, caring, kind, loving, giving, compassionate, fun and adventurous, but she was also broken and in pain. Her sister openly talked about unhealthy choices. She again affirmed that all of those wonderful things about her sister were true and right and good, but it was also true that her sister suffered and struggled her entire life with depression, substance abuse, and maintaining her mental health.

She was suffering from depression and addiction, and she lost her life because of it. Her sister courageously called every elephant in the room by name, and then extended a life line to us all. “If you are hurting, if you are struggling with addiction or depression, we are here for you. The church is here for you. You are not alone. We are with you. Let us help you.” It was fantastic. It was beautiful. It was amazing. She was amazing. She spoke eloquently about how she could love her sister and her sister could be a loving person while, at the same time, her sister was at the mercy of addiction and mental illness. In a stunning moment of power and truth, her sister proclaimed that there’s no shame to this. There’s no stigma to this. She was a beautiful person who suffered and because she was in so much emotional pain she took steps to rid herself of the pain. She just called it all out but still had all this love and respect and honor for her sister. It.was.powerful. And I am thankful for her brave words spoken in understanding, compassion, and love.

In closing, this requiem, this final act or token of remembrance for her, is truly the least I can do. I only pray it could have been more.

Speak the truth in love, brothers and sisters. Transparency saves lives, Malia

To be like Ruth.

Paul was not worried about dying, but he was worried about those he was leaving behind including his parents who are now in their 80s. I reassured him, “You made me a Dunn, and nothing is going to change that. I’m going to take care of these people,” and that’s exactly what I am doing not because I have to, not out of some sense of obligation or because it’s what Paul would have wanted but because I love them with the same deep, abiding love with which I loved Paul. They are my family and always will be. They have loved me as their own daughter. I may not be blood of their blood, but I am heart of their heart.

My husband came from a family of three boys. One night, we were all sitting around the dinner table as we frequently did, and Paul’s mom and dad were regaling us with stories of the challenges of raising three boys close in age to each other and how the risk of adding yet another boy to the raucous mix made trying for a girl a deal breaker. Then, one of them commented, “But then came Malia…” and my husband finished the thought with, “….and Mama got the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl she’d always wanted.” We all grinned at each other because we all knew it was true. I was so young when I married Paul and joined their family, and yet his parents were still young themselves. I could easily have been their natural child. No matter. They have surely and truly loved me as their natural child.

What’s more is that they possess memories of Paul that no one else has. He is alive in their memory. They tell stories about his childhood, adolescence, and the years before I met him. They keep me connected to Paul in ways that no one else can. I look at their faces, and I see Paul. His nose, his mouth and full lips, his narrow chin, and his deep brown eyes looking back at me. He’s there, in the slightest expressions in their faces, in their gestures, the way they walk and talk, the way they smile. I remember the same was true of my grandmother. Her daughter, my mother, died when I was twelve. My grandmother held my mother in her memory, in her face, her hands, her voice and her laugh, and as long as my grandmother was alive, I enjoyed that connection. She told me stories of my mother’s childhood and added dimension to my own memories by filling in details from her own perspective of the events.

When my grandmother died, a cord was cut. She took all of her memories with her, but sometimes shared memories can have a Droste effect becoming like a picture inside a picture inside a picture so that those we loved, but who are no longer with us, continue to live in our memories generation after generation. The memory becomes recursive. Now, I am remembering my grandmother remembering my mother, and one day, I will be remembering my husband’s parents remembering Paul, and I will be the one passing those memories on and keeping the connection alive.

***

In the Biblical book of Ruth, we learn about Elimelek and his wife Naomi who migrated to Moab because of famine in their homeland, Judah. Elimelek died, but their two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (Sidebar: Orpah is actually Oprah Winfrey’s real name.) The Book of Ruth goes on to say that after about ten years both of Naomi’s sons also died so she decided to return to her own family in Bethlehem in Judah because she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of His people and provided food in that region. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to also return to their own families. Initially, both Orpah and Ruth pleaded to be allowed to remain with Naomi, but at Naomi’s urging, Orpah turned back and returned to her own family. Only Ruth remained. She begged her mother-in-law to allow her to remain with her. Ruth pledged, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and so she did. Now, Ruth has her own book in the Bible. There’s only one other woman with her own book and that’s Esther. Esther was a typical Jewish girl who through God’s providence became Queen of Persia and is credited with saving her entire race. She clearly earned her Biblical standing. So, what did Ruth do to earn hers? Ruth was loyal and obedient as she navigated the series of changes life handed her. She, a foreigner, returned with Naomi to Judah, remarried a man named Boaz and produced a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Yes, that David, King David, whose offspring led to Jesus.

I can really relate to Ruth and her desire to remain with the family that God blessed her with, but it’s more than that. It’s about how faith and obedience go hand-in-hand. Ruth was obedient at every turn in her very difficult life. Obedience is not a word often used in our culture today. It has taken on some sort of uncomfortable connotation, but I think that both the word and concept have gotten a bad rap. Obedience is about turning control over to someone else, submitting the outcome to someone else and acknowledging that someone else knows better even if the outcome doesn’t seem better to us. I know. Really difficult stuff here but so important to a right relationship with God that bears fruit. It took me years to learn this. No, it took me years to even get a glimpse of what obedience looks like, sounds like, acts like. It took me years more to fully realize its potential, and yet I still lose my grip on this fundamental understanding. It’s like trying to grab a fish. You struggle to catch hold of its slimy, wriggling, flapping body. You finally manage to lasso it with your hands, and then it just slides right out of your grip.

Here’s how I discovered what Godly obedience is all about, but let me start with what it’s not. It’s not about following the rules. Yeah, I was shocked about that, too. I am a natural born rule-follower, and I think that’s what made my road to obedience longer and harder. I was outwardly clean but inwardly rotten, rebellious. I wasn’t following the rules because I wanted to or more importantly because God wanted me to. I was following the rules because that’s what good people do, and I was, of course <insert eye-rolling>, a good person. For me, that kind of thinking was literally the road to hell, to separation from God. So, one day, I just started playing a little what-if game. What if I do a thing not because I want to? What if I am obedient not because it’s a rule or a law or an expectation based on my race, gender, social station, or family dynamic? What if I do a thing because it’s what God wants me do, and it pleases Him? It’s life changing, friends. It’s trans-formative, and it’s hard.

I’ve also learned that, for me, when it comes to obedience, the train never pulls into the station. There is no arrival at success. There are many failures. It is an ongoing process. Case in point. Six years ago when life changed as it so often does, and I arrived at a new workplace, I was unhappy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why God stuck me there. I protested. I pouted. I dug in my emotional heels. I was not obedient. I didn’t embrace God’s will for my life. In a lot of ways, I was lost. Now, as I’m about to embark on a new journey in a new workplace, I left my work family with this:

A love letter…..

I have a confession to make. My first year at OMS was really hard for me. The transition was difficult. OMS was so VERY different from my previous school district, my previous position. You see, I had been really comfortable where I was. Maybe even too comfortable. As a 20 year veteran, I suddenly found myself with a lot to learn, and that was a little hard to take. My confidence was shaken. I have another confession. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to like OMS. In my mind, instead of getting on with it, I wanted to keep comparing it to what I missed so dearly in my former school and district. I was being stubborn and willful. I prayed to God and asked Him what in the world was He thinking? What purpose could He possibly have placing me here? I am embarrassed to say I wasted precious prayer time asking why, why, why. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me awhile to see that God was showing me why, every single day, in every single one of you. You won me over. You stole my heart. You made me love you, and I do love y’all.

I have learned so much from each of you. Y’all have inspired me to strive in my teaching, empowered me to press on, and comforted me through some of the darkest days of my life. You’ve picked up my slack when I just couldn’t rise to the occasion and celebrated with me when things went well. You’ve laughed with me when I allowed my silliness out to play, and cried with me when there were no words left to speak. You are among the finest teachers and human beings I have known. I will remember everything you have taught me. I will miss you dearly, and I thank God for the time I’ve spent with you all. Gosh, darn it, OMS! You made me love you!

I’m there in the picture with my work family, yet another family God blessed me with. These days, through all the changes and challenges that life has to offer, I want nothing more than to be an instrument of God’s will and trust all the consequences to Him. I’m doing my best to be obedient, to be like Ruth.

Malia